New leads, no luck in search for plane

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - France announced Sunday that it had new satellite data showing possible debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, the latest images to raise hopes of finding the jet.

But Australian officials said a search by planes Sunday produced no significant sightings.

The French images are the third set of satellite pictures issued in the past week that depict what could be wreckage from the plane that disappeared March 8 with 239 people on board. However, it was not clear whether they came from the same part of the Indian Ocean shown in other satellite images.

The French Foreign Ministry said radar echoes from a satellite had indicated the presence of debris in the ocean about 1,400 miles from the Australian coastal city of Perth but gave no direction or date.

That is roughly the same distance from Perth as satellite pictures released earlier by China and Australia, but a Malaysian official, who declined to be named, told the Associated Press they were nearly 600 miles to the north of the other images, meaning they could not be related.

"France had decided to mobilize complementary satellite means to continue the search in the identified zone," the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority on Sunday expanded the search effort once again, in light of the most recent sightings, with four military aircraft and four civilian jets scouring two areas of ocean covering a total of about 22,800 square miles.

The hunt for the plane - which vanished while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing - is one of the broadest aviation search-and-rescue operations in history.

Low fog hampered the search early Sunday, but John Young, general manager of the Australian maritime agency's emergency response division, said weather conditions in the remote part of the Indian Ocean appeared to be improving.

The grainy satellite photograph of a "suspicious floating object" issued by the Chinese was taken about 75 miles southwest of the debris sighting announced by Australia last week. The photograph was dated March 18, two days after the images from Australia were released.

The Australian maritime agency said the Chinese image was "consistent" in size and location with the other images. It said its planes had passed over the area identified in the Chinese image Saturday without spotting anything.

The object spotted by the Chinese was 74 feet long and 43 feet wide. That is too wide to have come from a plane "unless it is the root of the wing," said Peter Marosszeky, an aviation expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "It is a possibility, though unlikely."

A Boeing 777-200 is 209 feet long, with a wingspan of 199 feet and a tail height of 60 feet above the ground. Its body is 20 feet in diameter.

Even if empty fuel tanks inside the wing were filled with air, some experts said they doubted a fragment of that size could stay afloat for 10 days.

Mike Barton, the rescue coordination chief at the Australian maritime agency, said the biggest challenge was the search area's "remoteness from anywhere." That meant search planes were operating at the limits of their fuel supply, prolonging the search, he said.

Satellites have the advantage of passing directly over an object, "but actually determining what it is from an aircraft at a lot lower altitude, looking into the sun, with haze and all the rest of it, is proving difficult," Barton said.

If planes can find any of the floating objects or any new ones of interest, the next step will be to get a ship to the area and fish them out of the water. "Until we find them and have a good look at them, it's hard to say if they have anything to do with the aircraft," Barton said at a news conference in Canberra, the capital.

An Australian naval vessel is in the area, and a small flotilla of Chinese ships is heading to the search zone in the coming days. Merchant ships that had been involved in the search have been released, the Australian maritime agency said Sunday.

Japan and India were sending more planes, and two Chinese Ilyushin aircraft have arrived in Perth and are due to join the search today, the Australian agency said.

Young said the search area was being constantly refined to make it as accurate as possible.

On Sunday, the Malaysian government denied recent U.S. media reports that the passenger jet had been pre-programmed to turn sharply westward before it vanished from radar. Those reports, citing unidentified U.S. officials, said the plane's last transmission through the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, at 1:07 a.m. on March 8, indicated the shift in route, casting suspicion on the two pilots.

This was not true, Malaysia's Ministry of Transport said in a statement. "The last ACARS transmission, sent at 1:07 a.m., showed nothing unusual," it said.

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